On the face of it, Malin Byström doesn't seem an obvious choice for the title role of Salome: her home territory has been on lighter lyric fare, with Mozart at the top of the list. But her role debut last year in Amsterdam made audiences sit up and listen, and at Covent Garden last night, she was sensational.

Malin Byström (Salome) © ROH | Clive Barda
Malin Byström (Salome)
© ROH | Clive Barda

It's true that the role is a stretch for her voice at the low end of the register, where it was occasionally submerged. But when it came to the big, dramatic phrases at the top end, she had all the ability you might wish for to soar above the orchestra, all with a tone as smooth and clean as the sheer white satin of her costume. The intelligibility of her German was exceptional – perhaps the clearest I've ever heard. Byström looked every inch the part of the teenage princess, pencil thin and fresh-faced. And her portrayal was chilling, perfectly timed in its progression from sulky but relatively harmless teenage rebel moving through to the steadily increasing danger of her obsession with Jochanaan and culminating in her glorying in the realisation of the sexual power she has over Herod. It was the cleanness of the voice and the perfect diction that made the steady repetition of “Gib mir den Kopf des Jochanaan” into such a chilling refrain. Rarely can such beauty of voice have been combined with a snarl of such viciousness.

There are singers who argue that looks shouldn't matter in opera, but here's one example where I have to disagree: the contrast between a Salome with the elfin beauty of Byström and a Jochanaan played by the huge bear of a man that is Michael Volle plays neatly on our fairytale preconceptions of “Beauty and the Beast”, making it all the more telling when those preconceptions are totally subverted: in this opera, it's the beauty who becomes the beast. Volle has the voice to match – there are few baritones who could have matched the authority and gravel of that voice intoning from the off-stage depths.

Michael Volle (Jochanaan) and Malin Byström (Salome) © ROH | Clive Barda
Michael Volle (Jochanaan) and Malin Byström (Salome)
© ROH | Clive Barda

The true greatness of Salome is in the extravagant colours of its orchestral score, in which Strauss pulls every trick in the book – and many that weren't in the book before he wrote them – to portray sensuality, tension, drama, obsession. And herein lies a trap: the orchestral music is so vivid and strong that it's a Herculean task for a conductor to keep his musicians under sufficient restraint that one can hear the voices, without losing the dazzling brilliance and variety of the orchestral palette. I've heard it done wrong more often that right, but on this occasion, Henrik Nánási hit the bullseye: individual instrumental virtuosity was allowed to shine through time and time again; the overall sense of pace and drive was superb; but the volume of orchestral wash was tamed so that we could hear the voices. And in the Dance of the Seven Veils (where the voices are silent), Nánási was able to give his players their head, with satisfyingly dramatic results.

Having said which, I'm still in two minds about David McVicar's staging of that scene. The concept is sound enough: Salome is leading Herod through doorways into a series of rooms, each with a chapter of her life from child to (eventual) bride, with a supposition of child abuse at each stage (although this is not explicit). It's a welcome departure from a hackneyed striptease, but it's maybe just a fraction too subtle when set against the highly explicit passions and violence of the rest of McVicar's staging, which doesn't hold back on blood, nudity and degradation: the Dance loses some of its nature as the crisis point of the opera.

John Daszak (Herod) and Malin Byström (Salome) © ROH | Clive Barda
John Daszak (Herod) and Malin Byström (Salome)
© ROH | Clive Barda

The nature of Salome is that the two principals and the orchestra take the limelight. The supporting cast performed well without threatening that dominance: David Butt Philip has an appealing voice well suited to the nice young officer that is Narraboth; Michaela Schuster was a suitably harridan-like Herodias; John Daszak focused on the hapless impotence of Herod.

The top honours, however, go to Nánási and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House for a top class exposition of how to give us individual instrumental brilliance from countless members of the orchestra, balanced to let the clarity of the singing shine through and drive the drama. This is as strong a Salome as you'll see in many a year.